Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Poland: Monuments and Memory in Warsaw


Umschlagplatz Monument (top) and Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Monument (bottom)
Photos: Samuel D. Gruber 2008

Poland: Monuments and Memory in Warsaw
by Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) In my recent blogpost about President Obama’s visit to Buchenwald, I mentioned in comparison to Buchenwald's Little Camp (Kleine Lager)monument the older – and I think still exemplary – monument erected by the City of Warsaw at the place known as the Umschlagplatz (Ul. Stawki close to the intersection of ul. Dzika), the assembly and transfer point where Jews were herded from the Warsaw Ghetto and from whence they were placed on the trains that took them to their deaths at Treblinka.

I first saw the monument in 1990, shortly after it was constructed, and was struck then be the clarity of its design and the directness with which it spoke to the visitor. Unlike most Holocaust monuments I had seen up until that time, it was entirely devoid of the claptrap, bombast, false sentimentality and empty rhetoric common to memorials of all sorts. The Monument especially stood in start contrast to the granite and bronze Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Monument designed by L.M. Suzin and sculpted by Nathan Rapaport, which stands not far away and which, since its dedication in 1948, has been the iconic image of post-Holocaust Jewish Warsaw.

The dynamic tension between these monuments, which are now connected by the very subtle “Remembrance Walk,” is going to be changed with the construction of the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews, to be built immediately opposite Rapoport’s monument, and where construction begins this summer (see my previous post). No doubt the new museum will re-focus some interest on the history of the Ghetto period, but it is also likely to steal the thunder (whatever thunder is left) from the earlier memorials.

I had the opportunity to revisit both monuments last fall, after the Umschlagplatz monument was fully cleaned and restored by the City of Warsaw, which owns and is responsible for the site.


The monument is even smaller than I remembered it. Every time I visit I recall how delicate a structure it is, which surprises me given its continued power to arouse in me a powerful response – a reaction that is essentially rational, but that teeters on the edge of a deep well of grief. Of course the quiet of the monument is in contrast to what must have been the loud, tense, dangerous and tragic situation on this spot in 1943 (reenacted in the film The Pianist).

Like the monument at Treblinka, the destination point of Jews from the Umschlagplatz (and to my mind, one of the greatest memorials ever made), the monument is essentially abstract, and through the use of a few simple forms, materials and distilled inscriptions to uses abstraction to allow the mind and heart to meld in deep contemplation.

This is very different from the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Monument, which is a more in-your-face presentation of a heroic struggle and tragic lose. As James Young has carefully documented (Texture of Memory, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995, Chapter 5, “The Biography of a Memorial Icon: Nathan Rapoport’s Warsaw Ghetto Monument,” 155-184), the monument to the Ghetto Uprising was designed by Nathan Rapoport and unveiled in 1948. The sufferings and deaths of hundreds of thousands on and near this site are diminished, and even neglected in the selective memory that underlies Rapaport’s celebration of the Ghetto fighters.

The distinction between the two monuments is due in large part to the times in which they were built. The area of the ghetto, though a place of acute grief to many, was even more a site of shame – for those who perpetuated the cruelty of the place, but also for those who witnessed it, and for those who failed to act to prevent it. Thus only those aspects of the Warsaw Ghetto site that were deemed heroic were, until recently, officially remembered.

Though grand when first unveiled atop the rubble of the Ghetto, the Rapoport monument seems smaller now. It still commands the plaza on which it sits, but the plaza now has the intimacy of a familiar room. When I was last there a few old people were sitting on benches near the shrubbery, and a few children were playing. While the monument was originally pitched to a stadium-sized audience, now it is quieter, more like chamber music, but richer and subtler than it was before. Sixty-five years has not dimmed its message, but it has broadened it. While the children played, one man came and placed flowers at the monument base.

We now want much more from the monument, and I wish that for a generation or so it could be turned around so that the little-viewed (and rarely-reproduced) low relief on the back of the monument that shows the Jewish victims processing (to their deaths) could a greater focus of memory. Viewing that moving relief – that recalls the procession of Roman soldiers carrying the spoils of the Temple on the Arch of Titus in Rome, and thus a history of Jewish tragedy – is the first step toward transition to the Umschlagplatz.


Ghetto Uprising Monument (top), Arch of Titus, Rome (bottom)
Photos: Samuel D. Gruber

That relief is also rooted in the Jewish social art of the turn of the 20th century - works like Maurycy Minkowski'sJews Leaving the Town (ca 1910) and Jacob Weinles' Jews Fleeing a Pogrom (ca. 1914); both works lost or destoryed in the Holocaust; and Samuel Hirszenberg's Exile (1904)and The Black Banner (1905). Dr. Eleanora Bergman, Director of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw tells me that she, at least, always begins her tours of the Ghetto from the rear side of the monument.

Maurycy Minkowski, Jews Leaving the Town (ca 1910)

It is well known that Post-war selective rebuilding in Warsaw led to highly selective memory, not just of the Holocaust, but also of the entire pre-War and Jewish history of the city. It took a half-century for some of the elements of the earlier topography to reemerge - in the form of the unobtrusive Remembrance Walk, consisting of nineteen stone blocks sited on a route from the Ghetto Uprising Monument, culminating at the Umschlagplatz. The route and monument were designed by Hanna Szmalenberg and Wladyslaw Klamerus and dedicated in 1988 on the 45th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The simple blocks are dedicated to notable figures that died in the Ghetto and who are surrogates for thousands of unnamed others (but since the texts are only in Polish they are there for the local audience, not tourists - unlike the new series of monuments erected to remember the Ghetto wall, which are in Polish and English).

The subtle but still more visible Umshlagplatz monument, however, combines literal and symbolic elements in a formal memorial language. The enclosed space next to the former Jewish hospital provides a refuge for contemplation, but the enclosure also conveys the feeling of separation. The black band in the white wall recalls the tallit, Jewish shawl in which a man prayers, and in which a pious Jews is buried. Over the entrance is a matzevah (tombstone)- shaped lintel showing a broken tree, within a forest of broken trees symbolizing untimely death of an individual and of a community.

Inside, glimpsed through a cut in the wall, one sees a living tree, symbol of hope, renewal, revival. Is it the Tree of Knowledge? Or the Etz Hayyim, the Tree of Life? In a place like Warsaw, were the two the same? If people had known, would they have died? Or did they know, but did not act?

The artists chose four hundred first names, typical of Warsaw Ghetto Jews and engraved on the walls - to allow the viewer a glimpse of the individuality of the dead, and to associate with them. It’s as if we went to a Warsaw city directory of the period and picked out people, who became names, and then numbers, and then victims. Anyone and everyone is included. Whenever I visit I see my own name – Samuel – and know that I would have been a victim, too.


Inside the striped walls of the memorial, with its benches around the perimeter like an old prayer hall, one can almost here an old Jew – or all the Ghetto Jews – chanting El Maleh Rachamim (the memorial prayer).

Four plaques in Polish, Hebrew, Yiddish and English explain, “Along this path of suffering a death over 300,000 Jews were driven in 1942-43 from the Warsaw Ghetto to the gas chambers of the Nazi extermination camps.” Like the monument itself, the text is simple, direct and true.

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